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TSP’s Media Awards may have taken the summer off, but journalists and social scientists assuredly did not! We are excited to announce the winner of the May 2012 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science:

Paying for the Labors of Love,” Judith ShulevitzThe New York Times Sunday Book Review

In her engaging and thorough review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self (the author was the subject of her own Citing in May 2012 with a New York Times Op-Ed), Shulevitz wrote:

I guess you’d call it popular sociology, but I think of it more as an act of mourning. …Hochschild’s look at how we meet some of our most personal needs with the aid of paid strangers doesn’t try to be exhaustive; goes light on figures and statistics; and, when itemizing the most outrageous advances in the market for love and care, never lapses into that magazine journalist’s tone of wry amusement. …Hochschild isn’t really interested in the extremes of the outsourced life. She wants to know what it feels like to be caught in the middle of it. An ethnographic sociologist rather than a quantifier of social trends, Hochschild elicits thoughtful reflections from ordinary people. Then she uses those reflections to chart the confusing intersections between commerce and private life…

By going on to engage Hochschild’s book and other, relevant sources (including novels that illustrate “the gulf between employers, who imagine that relations between themselves and their emotional delegates are mutually beneficial, and the employed, who grasp the cash they take is meant to make them invisible”), Shulevitz shows the deep literary knowledge and willingness to delve into even daring topics that earned her editorial roles at New York MagazineSlate, and Lingua Franca, as well as bylines in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and more.

As we’ve said before, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees. In this case, we’ve actually chosen a piece that has not yet been featured on our site, though it is well-deserving of many a read. And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

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Photo by minicooper93402 via

For one-percenters like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it’s easy to get the world’s fastest divorce. Their legal split took only two weeks. But for the poorest of Americans, divorce is still a luxury item.

So begins the Huffington Post’s coverage of new research out from Ohio State University researchers Dmitry Tumin and Zhenchao Qian, the gist of which is long-term separations are increasing. The authors report that, in their longitudinal study of over 7,000 people, about 85% of spouses who separated got divorced within 3 years, but about 15% hadn’t signed the papers within 10 years. HuffPo goes on:

…[R]esearchers said there was an economic reason… they simply could not afford to get divorced, especially when there were children involved. The study found that the married-but-indefinitely-separated group generally had only a high school education, were black or Hispanic, and had young children.

And the economic reasoning is both a push and a pull. There is the base cost of getting divorced, of course: ranging from just hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the complications of bringing in lawyers to take care of custody arrangements and joint property, it takes some cash to split up. But there are the financial benefits of staying married to consider, too: joint tax returns and shared health coverage are among those cited by HuffPo’s author Catherine New, along with the lower cost of shared rent or a mortgage, childcare costs that can be alleviated by swapping duties within the household, and so on.

New adds one final thought for those optimists who think it’s not the money—a separation might actually just be bringing those 15% closer again (the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” line of reasoning): the Ohio State study finds that 5% of separated couples did get back together. But half of those got divorced anyway.

As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends… [later] people realize how much they have neglected to restock their pool of friends only when they encounter a big life event, like a move, say, or a divorce.

More fish, sure, but are there always more friends in the sea? In its Sunday edition, The New York Times considers the expansive, but shallow pools of friends, associates, and colleagues–the slackening social networks–so many notice with a start in middle age.

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

The article goes on to cite, beyond graduation, increasing couple-dom, divergent careers (even best friends can grow apart when one has mortgage troubles while the other can’t decide whether to spend one month or two in St. Bart’s), parenthood, and the pickiness engendered by self-discovery as reasons adults find themselves with fewer friends–and fewer avenues to find new ones–once they’re out of college and early career stages.

The good news, though, is that social scientists like psychologist Linda L. Carstensen have found that, as friend numbers dwindle (though perhaps not on Facebook), those remaining friendships grow closer.  In fact, Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis, tells the Times, “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People may find that they have just enough time to invest in real, lasting, fruitful friendships with this culled group.

Or, they might follow advice given by others in the Times: go on a search to fill specific “friend niches” or even launch back into the incredibly social, unattached behavior of their early 20s. Exhaustive, to be sure, but quite possibly exhausting.

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D. via
How do you decide what "half the work" means? Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D. via

In a June 2012 TIME Ideas column online, author Judith Warner reflects on the recent work of sociologist Andrea Doucet (of Ontario’s Brock University). Warner writes that Doucet’s focus on shifting family paradigms, as well as women’s increasing numbers in the ranks of “family breadwinners” (that is, primary earners in heterosexual relationships), has led the researcher to look for a change from “50-50” thinking to a focus on egalitarianism across the board. This leads to “something more like fairness—or like ‘symmetry’.”

Doucet tells Warner:

My overall aim is for gender equality… but it always bothers me when the measures we use are not quick in synch with how people live their lives… Maybe what we need to change then is that larger set of conditions that allow people to make choices that work.

The problem, the author explains, is that, even though many attempts have been made to create greater equality by assuming the gold standard would be “lives of sameness.” Through a series of rhetorical questions, Warner reasons that Doucet’s concept could open up space for families to define egalitarianism based on their own measures of earning power, love of career, and the rewarding (and annoying) aspects of various tasks that keep a family humming along:

It’s something of a “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” formulation, one that might, for once, just possibly work. Sharing, as opposed to equality.”

The real key here might lie in changing public discussions to reflect the actual lives of families, who are already negotiating, balancing, and flourishing in egalitarian homes. These mothers and fathers, wives and husbands might just need the vocabulary to explain their (gasp!) Marxist micro-communities.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Image: Lam Thuy Vo

Over at NPR’s Planet Money Blog, reporter Lam Thuy Vo takes a quick look at some of the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor to look at how women’s role in the economy (at least, on the employment side) has changed since 1972—coincidentally, the year the House and Senate both passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have mandated equal pay for equal work, but was not ratified by the states within the federal 10-year deadline.

Despite lacking legal backup in the fight against sex discrimination, women have certainly made strides in workforce participation in these forty years. They’ve gone from just 36.1% of the American workforce in 1972 to almost an even split at 49.3% in 2012. Vo further breaks out the gender division in workers across sectors for an interesting look at changing economies. It’s certainly worth a visit to look at not only how women’s roles in certain job categories have changed, but also how the proportion of those jobs in the American economy as a whole have changed in just four decades.

Aerial Map of Burning Man
An aerial map, analyzed by @thejaymo, of the annual Burning Man festival, a festival and utopian community based around public art. Photo © GeoEye, coded for Hexayurt Density.

While yesterday’s article from The Atlantic, “The Rise of the Temporary City,” never addresses utopianism, we still think Erik Olin Wright, American Sociological Association president and champion of the study of “real utopias” would be pleased with the rise of “temporary urbanism.” In the piece, which jumps off of the new book The Temporary City, author David Lepeska points out that pop-up cities are nothing new (the World’s Fair’s various incarnations spring to mind), but the recent spate of pop-up stores, restaurants, and the like seems to be breathing new life into these short-lived utopias.

The truly quick cities—week-long urban malls, for instance—are intriguing on their own, but urban planner Peter Bishop tells The Atlantic that it’s the “grander, longer-lasting temporary projects that have begun to alter thinking in the field.” Various projects cited include London’s “Boxpark,” in which “60 shipping containers have been turned into shops with three or five-year leases… in large part due to the open-mindedness of the landowners”; the now-permanent Camden Lock Market, which has “helped rejuvenate an overlooked neighborhood”; and even city-wide projects like Washington, D.C.’s Temporary Urban Initiative, meant to help developers overcome the slow pace of owner approval, permitting, and zoning for such projects.

The author points out that whether the pop-ups are just a passing revival of a past fad remains to be seen and will likely be measured by scholars like Bishop on “the extent to which major colleges and universities incorporate temporary concepts into their curriculum, and uptake among municipal officials.” Still, “temporary urbanism offers an innovative way to use vacant space, generate revenue, and boost property values in a downturn.”

Further, such projects offer an excellent experimental space in which to create, from the ground up, a new community and see how it plays itself out: real utopias in action. If, as Wright instructs, we should study operational utopias (like Copenhagen’s Christiania, which has been in operation as a squatter settlement since the early 70s) in order to be ready to take action when opportunities arise to improve our larger communities, we could do worse than to study the temporary urbanism of the 21st century.

Maternity Ward Cartoon by Mike Kline,

Kudos to University of Illinois sociologist and Council on Contemporary Families head Barbara Risman for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, more likely) for in an insightful commentary about why it is that the so-called Mommy Wars are a distraction—and how they’re keeping us from truly addressing work-life balance in the United States.

In her short piece, Risman points out just four of the many contradictions between society’s values and actions that put the lie to the valorization of care-giving, using research from sociology and beyond to demonstrate that post-war workplaces don’t (and, quite possibly, can’t) serve millenial families. In one particularly telling example, Risman writes:

Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky pointed out these contradictions back in 1953. She argued back then that if society truly believed caretaking was an important and difficult job, nursery school teachers would rate a salary at least equal to the beginning salary of a street cleaner. Not much has changed since then. As Stephanie Coontz, a historian and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, told me: “It’s time for politicians to stop competing over the women’s votes and start competing over who has the best programs to support all parents, whatever their employment status or their gender.”

She concludes with a succinct call to action: “Let’s call a truce on the fictional mommy wars and start a war on workplaces that don’t allow mommies and daddies to live full lives, on the job and at home.”

HBO Weight of the Nation Image
The promotional image for HBO's documentary series "The Weight of the Nation."

While it’s still hotly debated whether obesity is, in fact, a health crisis, in today’s New York Times, one-time food critic Frank Bruni considers recent obesity research in evolutionary science, medicine, public health, and beyond, concluding that it will require society-level change if we are to stem “a near inevitable tide.” (See also his blog post from today, “The Girth of the Globe,” which discusses Bruni’s perceptions of American dietary habits in a larger context.) The Centers for Disease Control, Bruni writes, now considers about two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, but “Our current circumstances and our current circumferences may in fact be a toxically perfect fit.”

This is to say, learning to perfect agriculture in abundance has created “plump savings accounts of excess energy” in both our grain silos and our love handles “for an imagined future shortage that, in America today, doesn’t come.” Bruni interviews John Hoffman, an executive producer on HBO’s forthcoming documentary series “The Weight of the Nation,” who tells him that “We’ve only known a world of plenty for maybe 100 years. Our biological systems haven’t adapted to it.” And quoting from Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin’s book The Evolution of Obesity, Bruni adds, “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa. We now live in Candyland.”

Bruni goes on in his op-ed to consider how one problem in fighting obesity is that we must eat:

“When it comes to smoking or drinking, people generally have to go cold turkey,” notes David Altshuler, an endocrinologist and geneticist, in the documentary. “But fundamentally, we have to eat.” Every meal is a… feat of calibration. “We underestimate how hard it is to change your behavior not once—not for a week or a month until you’re cured—but to change it every day for the rest of your life,” says Altshuler.

In conclusion, Bruni writes we must understand this paradox, cease to vilify the obese, and “rethink and remake our environment much more thoroughly than we seem poised to do.” This may, perhaps, be true well beyond Americans’ own equators.

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One of the main goals of the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages goes beyond simply spotting social scientists and their work in the news to finding great uses of social scientific perspectives and findings in reporting on the issues of the day. To further highlight those journalists and outlets that are doing a top-notch job of giving their work nuance and scientific grounding by reaching out to well-spoken, approachable, and even daring social scientists, we are proud to announce the winners of our inaugural TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science for the months of January and February 2012.

January 2012: Lauren Collins, “Brave New World: The Tao of Wifi.” New Yorker, December 5, 2011. As we wrote in our post on the piece, “It’d be easy to think that Georg Simmel hasn’t been the talk of the town since he took on Kant, but there he is, resplendent in the New Yorker’s front section.” In this article, Collins not only explores an interesting social phenomenon, but she asks an urban studies professor and draws on classic sociological work to consider something that could be easily overlooked, but turns out to be interesting, revealing, and even deeply funny.

February 2012: Greg Breining, “Higher Ed Leans Left. By Why? And So What?Star Tribune, January 28, 2012. Written up for Citings & Sightings by Alex Casey, this op-ed goes beyond simply reporting Neil Gross and Solon Simmons’ findings on the political bent of the professorial ranks to seeking out social scientists to discuss why the ivory tower might lean left and whether it has any implications for the education provided at institutions of higher ed.

Now, just a note on process: with these informal awards, we hope to hand out some cheers, but we have no grand aspirations to offer cash prizes or trophies (though, oh, how we long to have gold-plated teaspoons to hand out to the lucky and deserving winners!), we simply wish to encourage journalism that engages social science. That said, we’re not being very scientific about the selection: there’s been no systematic review of all the newspapers (even Sarah Palin’s not up to reading all of them), nor have we performed any content analysis searching for “Weber” and “social capital.” Instead, we’ve talked—a lot—as a board, winnowed down our favorites to a set of nominees, and then talked some more. Each month, we’ll announce a new winner and encourage you to go read their piece. We think it’s worth your time!

All the best,

The Society Pages

PSU Mon Feb 20, 2012 81Poor sleep is said to affect everything from productivity to anxiety (not to mention anxiety about productivity), and worse still, it’s believed to affect, oh, nearly everyone. But could this modern malady have a historical cure?

The BBC reports that historians and sleep scientists alike are increasingly convinced that all evidence points to a preindustrial pattern of bimodal or segmented sleep. That is, as historian Roger Ekirch reported in his 2005 book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, before lights and blinking devices filled our days and nights, weary bodies would fall into a sleep pattern that included some sleep when it got dark, then a period of wakeful (but still restful–sometimes including chatting with bedfellows or sex) time sometime during the night, and one more deep sleep before dawn. By the end of the 1600s, the article says, most European cities were lit at night, and, ever since, our pattern has been dashed. Our cities never sleep, and it seems we don’t do a good job of it either.

Now, as countless doctors recommend a standard 8 hours of sleep each night (and gently chide those who admit to more or less than that number), a psychological study from the 1990s, performed by Thomas Wehr (now an emeritus scholar with the National Institute for Mental Health), is being coupled with historical research like Ekirch’s to revive the idea that humans are built for a much different sleep pattern than we generally follow today. In Wehr’s study, subjects were kept in the dark for 14 hours a day. It was a tough adjustment, no doubt, but soon they fell into an easy and uniform cycle that looked just like what Ekirch had found in heaps of historical references: sleep, quiet wakefulness, and sleep.